Rewriting a Novel: Five Ways to Make It Less Painful

rewriting novelI’ll let you in on a little secret: I hate rewriting.

I know, I know. I should enjoy rebuilding characters and their motives. I should take pleasure in ironing out all those little plot inconsistencies and cutting away the excess weight of irrelevancies. I should, but I don’t.

Context: I finished a new first draft back in December. Yay! More books! Only not quite. I refer to characters by different names throughout. Everything seems to be spelt incorrectly. I go off on wild, irrelevant tangents, and the initial brilliance of the plot in my mind appears lost underneath bad pacing and inconsistent voice. Why can’t it just be as easy as getting down those first draft words and sending it out to the world? Sadly, that’s just the way it is.

Fortunately, there are ways to make the rewriting process somewhat more bearable. So, dust off that old manuscript you’ve had lying in that digital drawer for years and get ready to enter a world of annoying technicalities and crises of confidence!

1. Take a break from your manuscript, if you want to.

One of the top rules that pretty much every writer appears to agree on is that for a rewrite to be successful, or legitimate, us writers need to distance ourselves from our work before jumping into the rewrite. Personally, I spend four weeks maximum away from the work, but within those four weeks, I don’t detach myself from the world of the story. I might have a read through after two weeks. I might hop into a section and see how it’s panned out, and jot down a few notes on how I could improve it.

The thing is with these rules that writers set is that you really should just take them with a pinch of salt. I realise I’m being kind of hypocritical, sitting here writing a list of methods myself, but note the ‘if you want to’ in the heading. What does that mean? Well, don’t just spend a few weeks away from it because ‘Author X’ said that’s the way to do it. If you wake up after a week and are raring to get rewriting, then firstly, credit to you. Secondly, just follow what feels good. Don’t hold off just because another writer said they do.

A word on these little lists us bloggers write — sometimes, believe it or not, we don’t follow our own rules. We write what we know will appeal to the masses. That’s just the nature of the internet and attracting readers, I’m afraid. While I try not to do it myself, we’re all guilty of writing an idealistic sentence or two in our lives when in reality, we’re struggling away like the rest of you.

We’re all human. Find what works for you. There’s some great advice out there, but it’s absolutely fine to ignore it if it doesn’t click with you.

2. Create a rewriting outline.

So, I’m going to pretend I didn’t type any of those last few words and give you another suggestion. I’d highly recommend creating a rewriting outline if you’re struggling with the process. I know for a fact that I struggle, and creating an outline really seems to be helping me this time round.

What is an outline? Roz Morris calls it a ‘beat sheet’ in her (excellent) Nail Your Novel eBook. The idea is that you go through your manuscript and write down a snapshot of the intended purpose of each scene on a spreadsheet/piece of paper/loo roll. That way, when you’re done, you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of what your novel looks like. You’ll be able to work out where you should slip in a quieter scene, whether you build up to a strong enough climax, and whether your book lags in the middle.

It’s also a great way of ticking off your rewriting process. I highlight a scene in red on the beat sheet when I’ve completed rewriting it. There are few feelings better than seeing that red box increase as the days go by. Great way to stay sane, for sure.

3. Set realistic targets.

A word on staying sane — rewriting will probably challenge your sanity, so set yourself some realistic targets. I like to try to get at least two scenes rewritten a day, depending on length, and that works for me. It’s important not to overkill rewriting much in the same way as first drafting: you don’t want to burn out. It’ll just make for more rewriting in the future, and nobody wants that, huh?

Another reason why not to go too crazy on rewriting, perhaps more so than first draft writing: you don’t want to become too absorbed in your novel. When I write a first draft, I tend to write from a semi-subconscious state whereby words are flowing out of my head based on what sounds good, and matches up to my first draft ‘roadmap’.

Rewriting is kind of different, though. You’re making your protagonist’s goals more streamlined, really throwing yourself into their perspective and mindset to try to feel their dilemma. So, if you’re rewriting 20,000 words per day of a negative-themed novel, chances are you’re going to feel a bit shit afterwards.

As with everything in writing (and life!), know your limits, and set your targets based on those limits. Rewriting may be a slow, fatiguing process that seems to drag on and on, but you and your readers will thank you for it if you are patient. It’ll make for a better novel.

4. Accept that the first draft is a very different beast to your initial idea.

This is a hard lesson that all of us writers learn: our writing rarely matches up to the initial idea. Maybe a character that you planned an epic plot twist for is kind of in the background more than first imagined. Maybe the protagonist’s entire persona has taken on a whole new meaning. ‘It’s rubbish! It’s nothing like I planned!’

Well, time to accept that, my friend. Our brain is a magnificent tool, but it’s very rare that we totally capture its inspirational ideas in full. Something happens in the stage between thinking up something and committing it to paper. I guess in the same manner that music files lose quality the moment they are ripped from intangible abstract sounds on a disc, to mp3 files on computer hard drives, ideas lose their sharpness in their ‘conversion’ from pure thought to writing.

But it’s not such a bad thing. Celebrate the fact that you’ve got even just a fragment of that idea jotted down. I used to get stressed about this point in particular, but as I write more, I find myself marvelling at the beauty of this amazing conversion process. Even the initial plan I had for this blog post and how it has ultimately turned out is phenomenal, and totally unpredictable.

So, instead of lamenting the inadequacies, embrace the inconsistencies. I reckon that would make for an amazing t-shirt slogan, right?

5. Work on a new project to boost creative energy.

Of course, we’re writers, so the last thing we should be doing is spending too much time in the critical side of our brains when the creative side is crying out for some love.

Well, what’s stopping you commencing work on a new project?

The What We Saw rewrites were difficult at first, mainly because I didn’t give myself anything fresh to focus on. Being my first novel, I was still very much in the ‘one project at a time’ camp. But late on in the rewrite process, I worked on a couple of short stories (Something in the Cellar and Silhouette), and found that not only were my ideas still very much intact despite the rigours of the rewriting process, but the critical side of my brain was actually stimulated by these new ideas.

Now I’ve finished the first draft of Killing Freedom and started working on the rewrites, what am I doing to keep the creative side of my brain stimulated? Well, I’ve only gone and written 40,000 words of another novel. It’s tricky balancing both projects at times, but simply knowing that I’ll most likely have two books out this year is what gets me through it.

If the rewriting is getting you down, pick up your pen and get creative. It’s healthy to be writing daily, so this is a great way to keep yourself in check.

Something in the Cellar and Silhouette now available on Kobo; other stores to follow.

After reaching the end of their KDP Select commitments, I’ve decided to make my two short stories, Something in the Cellar and Silhouette, available cross-platform.

I’m a big fan of KDP Select (thoughts on that here and, more recently, here) and will continue to enrol my novels in it, however I don’t see much in the way of benefits for short stories. I’ve given a few thousand away, but without any real impact on sales, so it makes sense to ‘push the boulders‘ out of Select and onto pastures new.

Both books are available on the Kobo and Smashwords stores right now, however other stores may be somewhat delayed due to issues with Smashwords. One day, that place will be brilliant. One day…

Do you enjoy the rewriting process? How do you motivate yourself to battle through it? Any tips for readers?

Image courtesy of found_drama via Flickr


  1. I hate rewriting. Finishing up the first draft is so satisfying, then actually reading it and seeing all the work you still have to do is such a drag.

    • I agree, Jess. It’s a draining process for sure. I know some people enjoy it, but I find it a real drag. But hey — I guess it’s always rewarding when we finish, right?

  2. Great post, Ryan. It would be great if my first drafts were ready for prime time but like you, I spill words, sometimes incoherent, incomplete passages onto the page. I struggle with narrative and often will leave a few XXXs or comments for myself and just move into the dialogue. I know where I need to go with the plot, I’m just not ready to fill in all the details. I also found that with my current WIP, I was still getting to know one of the MCs practically up until the last 1/3 of the story. Now, as I begin to revise, I think I know his thoughts, feelings and goals so much better.

    I like the idea of a rewriting outline. I may give that a try before I dive back into chapter 1.

    • Thanks, Char. Your first drafts certainly sound similar to mine, but I suppose that isn’t a bad thing — at least we get the bare bones of the story down, which is always a good thing, eh?

      Revision is a great way to re-establish what a character’s goals really are, you’re right. I start writing THINKING I know a protagonist, but they continue to surprise me in the draft. Part of the fun.

      Rewriting outlines really help me, so I’d give it a shot and see if it works for you. Might make a difficult process that bit less tricky.

  3. On rewriting X number of chapters per day, I found that sometime I could fly through one chapter after another, then suddenly bog down as if I’d hit quicksand when I realised that a whole chapter would need re-jigging. That and having to swap chapters with each other is the hardest and can really slow the re-write. However, once completed, it justifies the entire process as worthwhile.

    When the time came to ‘rest’ the WIP in its digital drawer, I managed to leave it alone, but my Muse constantly ruminated upon the whole project, presenting me with scores of ‘wouldn’t that bit be better if…’ and ‘that character should be more affected by…’ So by the time I retrieved the WIP, I was already full of ideas before I’d even read a word!

    Your term ‘writing outline’ best describes how my WIP emerges from a basic plan to a full-blown First Draft. I have a rough idea of the beginning, a vague idea of the mid-point and a firm idea of the ending.

    • I agree on the ‘rewriting X chapters per day’ idea, Andrew. I actually tend to give myself loose scene-by-scene rewrites, or set aside an hour. It’s a different process to first drafting, but I guess that keeps things varied, right?

      And that sounds like the best way to go about a ‘break’. Let the mind breed new ideas and go about implementing them when it does come to the rewrite!

      As for the outlines, I tend to write a rather clear outline before I start my first draft because it’s a good idea (for me) to have a sense of where the thing is going. One of the most fun things though is diverting somewhat from the course of the plotline – even though a lot of those scenes don’t survive my revisions, they are the ones I tend to have the most fun with, and help me explore the character/plot.

  4. You have fantastic advice in here, Ryan. My favorite points are 1) Take a break–work on something else for a bit and 2) Know your limits and set targets based on those limits. Have you ever read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird? The entire book is amazing, but there’s a whole chapter in there called Shitty First Drafts–your opening statements here reminded me of that section of her book. She says:

    “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

    So, don’t ever feel despair or down about your first drafts. Second, I think of rewriting as the most creative part of the process. It’s where you get out your tools and begin sculpting the masterpiece. Though the final product looks from your initial idea, it’s still the same clay you started with, right? The heart of the story–the reason you wrote it in the first place–should still be there.

    Rewriting is definitely a process and a hard one… but like you said so eloquently, there’s something marvelous, in the true sense of the word, that happens in the conversion process that makes it beautiful.

  5. I actually don’t have a problem with rewriting. My major issue is procrastination. :/

  6. Thanks! I’d never imagined that I needed to have an outline for my rewrite because I’d already made an outline for the first draft. But I made a fresh one with all the plot modifications I wanted and now the rewriting is becoming a ton easier.
    I have a slightly different question concerning rewrite and I’d be grateful if you could answer it. When I’m writing, I feel so pressurized to write well that it takes me five minutes to find the write word. For Every WORD! So you can imagine how much time I take to write one page. Reading your account of just letting the words flow in the first draft sounds so enviable!
    Do you have any suggestions where I don’t choke up with the fear of writing in a bad way. I know the simply solution is “then just go ahead and write,” but it’s like the battle is lost inside my head before my pen even touches the paper.
    Would love any kind of tips. Thanks!

  7. I am a first timer and just googled re-writing how to do it and came across your blog…it has helped me because 87% of what you posted, I feel. Thanks for blogging so that I don’t feel so alone, so inadequate…and by the way are all your posters (is that what it’s called when people post?) and you published authors….that’s the next thing I need advice on….

  8. Excellent and inspiring post, Ryan. I’m tackling re-writes today. Strangely, once I’m in the groove, it’s been going quite well. Getting and staying in that groove is another matter. The inconsistencies with my home-life schedule often throws my work-life schedule for a loop. I work when I can, and try to stay fluid to things that come up or else I end up fuming at being interrupted. The trick for me is to take time when I can and create time to write, even if I have to ask for help to clear up a few hours here and there. I can’t feel bad for wanting to progress my writing and finish my manuscripts. You’re right. Staying busy with different types of writing in different stages helps, I think. Enjoyed this post! Happy for your progress! Hope you have a great day.

    Laurie Kozlowski

    • Thanks, Laurie. Although a few of my personal methods have changed since this post back in Feb 2013, the concept of creating a workable schedule and sticking to it very much stand.
      Good luck with your writing!



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